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2021 Triple-A East Top 10 Prospects

Feat Franco, Wander Run (Brian Westerholt Four Seam Images)
(Photo by Brian Westerholt/Four Seam)

Looking for the game’s brightest young stars in 2021?

Just turn your attention to the Triple-A East, the 20-team behemoth that preserved the old 14-team International League while bringing aboard six other franchises, four from what was the Pacific Coast League.

By season’s end, four of the game’s five best prospects—Adley Rutschman, Bobby Witt Jr., Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene—reached Triple-A and qualified for our list. So, too, did Wander Franco, who opened the year as baseball’s No. 1 prospect at Durham before climbing to Tampa Bay in late June.

The incredible prospect depth at Triple-A East made it exceptionally difficult for breakout names like Juan Yepez (Cardinals) and Dalton Kelly (Rays) to receive notice. It’s also why multiple Top 100 types, such as Cristian Pache, Drew Waters and Nolan Jones, couldn’t even crack the top 10 after struggling in 2021.

1. Wander Franco, SS, Durham (Rays)
Age: 20. B-T: B-R. Ht: 5-10. Wt: 189. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2017

Wander Franco’s only taste of the upper levels was the 39 games he spent with Durham. He aptly combated older Triple-A pitchers with his discerning plate discipline and exceptional pure hitting ability.

Franco’s swing from both sides holds up even against the most stringent scrutiny. His flat bat path allowed him to handle pitches in all areas of the strike zone, particularly punishing offerings in the upper third. Triple-A pitchers rarely generated swings and misses from Franco—14% whiff rate, according to Synergy Sports—and even less so on fastballs, which he missed on just 8% of his swings. Franco proved in batting practice that he has plus power in the tank.

Tampa Bay called on Franco, who is younger than every college player selected in the first round of this year’s draft, to aid their pennant push. He appeared ready to become a dark horse AL Rookie of the Year candidate before a hamstring injury sidelined him in early September.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Wander Franco, SS, Durham (Rays)1623051116735122154.315.367.586

2. Adley Rutschman, C, Norfolk (Orioles)
Age: 23. B-T: B-R. Ht: 6-2. Wt: 220. Drafted: Oregon State, 2019 (1st round).

Double-A managers showered Rutschman with superlatives in Best Tools balloting, and he showed the same qualities upon his arrival at Triple-A with Norfolk.

Rutschman pairs easy plus power from both sides of the plate with an advanced, patient approach. He walked nearly as frequently as he struck out, and his chase rate at Triple-A was among the lowest of any prospect to make this list. Rutschman’s plate discipline allows him to hunt mistakes, and his swing is geared to crush them.

If there was anything to quibble with—and one truly has to nitpick in this case—it’s that Rutschman’s swing is more lofted from the left side, and Triple-A pitchers had some early success attacking him both at the top of the strike zone and with sliders.

Defensively, Rutschman’s blocking is fundamentally sound and his plus arm strength allows him to make every throw. Baseball’s No. 1 prospect looks every bit of a future franchise cornerstone in Baltimore.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Adley Rutschman, C, Norfolk (Orioles)157254992520243322.312.405.490

3. Bobby Witt Jr., SS, Omaha (Royals)
Age: 21. B-T: R-R. Ht: 6-1. Wt: 200. Drafted: HS—Colleyville, Texas, 2019 (1st round).

Witt tormented upper-level pitchers in 2021, which included 15 homers through his first 50 games for Omaha. His overall game is so complete, it’s easy to forget this was his first year in full-season ball.

Witt is a true five-tool player. His powerful swing is geared toward lofting pitches a long way, and he crushed fastballs and sliders alike in his time at Triple-A. He’s a dynamic defender, plays with a unique ferocity and made strides to alleviate some of the swing-and-miss concerns in his game.

A plus runner, Witt’s speed and athleticism often surprised both managers and evaluators seeing him for the first time. One rival manager predicted Witt’s stolen base numbers could soon improve once he gains more experience on the basepaths.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Bobby Witt Jr., SS, Omaha (Royals)253557224017462664153.285.352.581

4. Riley Greene, OF, Toledo (Tigers)
Age: 20. B-T: L-L. Ht: 6-3. Wt: 200. Drafted: HS—Oviedo, Fla., 2019 (1st round).

The Tigers promoted both Greene and Spencer Torkelson to Triple-A Toledo in mid August. Greene made an immediate impact, hitting .295 with power through his first 26 games.

Greene’s pure hitting ability rivals any prospect in the minors, leading evaluators to speculate he could one day compete for batting titles. He checks all the boxes—ample bat speed, barrel control and a mature all-fields approach—and he takes aggressive swings on pitches in the zone, to the point one Triple-A manager speculated it intimidates opposing pitchers.

Greene is an above-average defender in center field despite lacking the top-end speed some may expect from the position, and most give him a shot to stick there. He played all three outfield positions while with Toledo. Despite his young age, he handled every challenge in 2021 with aplomb.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Riley Greene, OF, Toledo (Tigers)159364993830225140.308.400.553

5. Spencer Torkelson, 1B, Toledo (Tigers)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht: 6-1. Wt: 220. Drafted: Arizona State, 2020 (1st round).

Torkelson played at three different levels in 2021, ending in Toledo alongside Riley Greene. Torkelson wasn’t overly productive in his first Triple-A foray, but all the indicators suggesting Torkelson possesses immense hitting upside remain intact.

Torkelson has massive power potential and impressive strike-zone judgment. He has a complete package with the potential to hit .300 with 30-plus home runs at his peak.

His defensive future also appeared to crystallize at Toledo, where he played strictly first base after spending about half his time at third base at High-A and Double-A.

Evaluators were always skeptical of Torkelson’s ability to play third base, and Tigers manager A.J. Hinch revealed Torkelson’s long-term future in an early September interview with MLB Network Radio.

“I mean, there’s no secret that the first baseman of the future is going to be Spencer Torkelson,” Hinch said. “He’s in Triple-A, hitting a homer about every other day and he’s opening eyes.”

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Spencer Torkelson, 1B, Toledo (Tigers)1473535811127233610.238.350.531

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6. Shane Baz, RHP, Durham (Rays)
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht: 6-2. Wt: 190. Drafted: HS—Tomball, Texas, 2017 (1st round/Pirates).

Baz boosted his stock as much as any pitching prospect in 2021, vastly refining his strike-throwing to emerge as one of the game’s top pitching prospects in 2021.

Triple-A East managers voted Baz the top pitching prospect in the league, and the righthander now looks far more like a future mid-rotation starter after many projected him as a future power reliever even a year ago.

Baz has impressive arm speed and two plus pitches. His fastball sits 96-98 mph, and he can throttle it up or down to manipulate the velocity with ease. He pairs it with a wicked, plus slider, and the Rays were encouraged with the progress of Baz’s changeup, which he’s beginning to trust in higher leverage situations.

Baz cut his walk rate nearly in half in 2021, an impressive development considering he walked more than four batters per nine innings in 2019.

Pitcher, Pos, Team (Org)WLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOAVG
Shane Baz, RHP, Durham (Rays)301.7610100462810961164.173

7. Vidal Brujan, 2B/OF/SS, Durham (Rays)
Age: 23. B-T: B-R. Ht: 5-9. Wt: 180. Signed: Dominican Republic, 2014.

Brujan is considered one of the more dynamic players in Tampa Bay’s loaded farm system thanks to an impressive blend of speed, contact ability and versatility. Power potential was never a major component. So when Brujan hit seven homers through his first 22 games for Durham this year after previously never hitting more than nine in a season, eyebrows were raised.

Those gains didn’t quite hold up throughout the rest of the season. Brujan posted a .691 OPS with four homers through his next 82 games, sandwiched around a lackluster big league debut when he hit .077 in 26 at-bats.

Brujan’s long-term profile remains very much intact. He has game-changing speed he used to lead all Triple-A East players with 41 steals as of Sept. 21. He makes a ton of contact from both sides of the plate, though he makes more impact from the left. His defensive value could ultimately come from his ability to play several positions adequately, and at his best could steal as many as 50 bases a year while adding 10-15 homers.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Vidal Brujan, 2B/OF/SS, Durham (Rays)3897710231112564968448.262.345.440

8. Jose Barrero, SS, Louisville (Reds)
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht: 6-2. Wt: 175. Signed: Cuba, 2017.

The Reds turned to Barrero, then playing as Jose Garcia, during the shortened 2020 season in dire need of shortstop help despite Barrero having never played in the upper minors. Predictably, he struggled, striking out nearly 38% of the time, but it was clear then Barrero possessed an impressive tool set.

Barrero proved it again this year. He made meaningful changes to his approach, posting a career-best 10% walk rate with Louisville as he tried to avoid expanding the zone and chasing offspeed pitches. He does quite a bit of damage when he can square balls up and has all the skills to be a plus defender at shortstop, albeit with more refinement needed.

His strides came amid a challenging year. He changed his last name from Garcia to Barrero at the start of the season to honor his mother, who died from Covid-19 complications.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Jose Barrero, SS, Louisville (Reds)17031521001338204483.306.392.594

9. Jarren Duran, OF, Worcester (Red Sox)
Age: 25. B-T: L-R. Ht: 6-2. Wt: 200. Drafted: Long Beach State, 2018 (7th round).

Duran made significant swing changes in 2020 while stashed away at the Red Sox’s alternate site, dropping his hands and upping his leg kick in pursuit of added loft in his swing to unlock his ample power more regularly. The early returns suggested Duran boosted his profile with a blend of bat speed, strength and speed.

The question now: How much of it can be sustained?

Duran excelled against Triple-A pitchers, hitting .262 with 15 homers through 51 games at hitter-friendly Worcester, while also playing for Team USA during Olympic qualifying. But his MLB debut was far less productive.

Boston called up Duran in mid July, installing him as an everyday outfield option. Duran hit just .215 and struck out nearly 36% of the time, continuing to tinker with his swing as MLB pitchers exposed holes at the top of the zone and in his approach.

Duran’s struggles were indicative of the widening talent gap between Triple-A and the majors this year, but evaluators most bullish on his swing changes maintain he has a chance to be a dynamic power-speed option who can stick in center field with more refinement.

Player, Pos, Team (Org)ABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBCSAVGOBPSLG
Jarren Duran, OF, Worcester (Red Sox)244466311216363066163.258.357.516

10. Matthew Liberatore, LHP, Memphis (Cardinals)
Age: 21. B-T: L-L. Ht: 6-5. Wt: 200. Drafted: HS—Glendale, Ariz., 2018 (1st round/Rays).

Could a small velocity spike be the last box to check for Matthew Liberatore?

Still just 21, Liberatore has long been regarded as a polished lefthander with mid-rotation upside. He has never had overly loud stuff, but a combination of four average to above-average pitches and strong command allowed Liberatore to succeed at every level.

Quietly, though, Liberatore added a few ticks to his fastball down the stretch, touching 97 mph deep into multiple outings in late September. The velo spike was notable after Liberatore mostly sat at 90-93 mph early in the season, and he had success in his new range, posting a 3.12 ERA since Aug. 1.

Liberatore’s velocity band has oscillated dating back to his amateur days, so he’ll have to prove he can maintain it. But it’s certainly an intriguing development for an arm who stood to benefit from improving his mostly average four-seamer, and he could soon slot into the middle of the Cardinals’ rotation.

Pitcher, Pos, Team (Org)WLERAGGSSVIPHRERHRBBSOAVG
Matthew Liberatore, LHP, Memphis (Cardinals)994.042218012512366561933123.257

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